By a 2-1 decision, a panel of three judges of the Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit overturned District Court Judge Richard Berman’s decision that overturned the NFL’s suspension of New England Patriots’ quarterback Tom Brady.
In its decision, the majority held that Judge Berman ignored the exceptional deference federal law afford decisions of labor arbitrators and acted beyond the narrow scope of review federal courts are required to adhere to. Specifically, the Court held that in suspending Brady, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell properly exercised the broad discretion given to him by Article 46 of the collective bargaining agreement to suspend players for “conduct detrimental” to the NFL and/or the integrity of the game.
In its decision, the Court highlighted and rejected each of the three bases upon which Judge Berman overturned Brady’s suspension: 1) that Brady was not given proper notice that his actions could result in a four-game suspension, 2) that testimony excluded from the arbitration made the decision fundamentally unfair, and 3) that the NFL’s denial of access to the investigative notes from the NFL’s General Counsel also amounted to fundamental unfairness. In the case of each, the Court ruled that Judge Berman acted beyond his authority and did not afford Goodell’s decision the deference it was entitled to under the federal Labor Management Relations Act and the Federal Arbitration Act. The Court noted that under federal law, so long as the arbitrator is “even arguably construing or applying the contract and acting within the scope of his authority” the decision must be upheld, and that a judge cannot simply substitute his judgment for that of the arbitrator.
It is worth noting that the point of controversy which received a large bulk of the media attention in this case, that Goodell was able to serve as arbitrator in a dispute involving discipline he himself meted out, was a relatively minor issue to the Court. The Court that found this arrangement is extremely unusual, but noted that it was the process explicitly called for by the collective bargaining agreement. This is consistent with a long line of cases emphasizing that when parties to a collective bargaining agreement agree to a grievance process which ends in final and binding arbitration, that the decision of an arbitrator should be just that: final, binding, and free from interference by the courts. It seems that if the NFL and the NFL Players Association are to fix what many agree is a broken system of disciplinary appeals, they will have to do so at the bargaining table, rather than in a courthouse.